Joe Manchin was no centrist
This week Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, announced that he will not run for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2024. Losing just this seat—and almost no one thinks any Democrat but Mr. Manchin can win in West Virginia—could cost the Democrats control of the Senate, where they now have a 51-49 majority (with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking tie votes in their favor). Mr. Manchin has long been considered the 51st Democratic vote. In this session, he has voted against his party more often than any other member who caucuses with the Democrats: 20 percent of the time, with Kristen Synema of Arizona a distant second with 7 percent. (Ms. Synema formally left the Democratic Party last December.)
The senator’s centrist credentials are further burnished by his stance on abortion: definitely not in lockstep with the pro-choice Democratic Party but sometimes difficult to pin down. Mr. Manchin, a Catholic, said he was “deeply disappointed” when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but then he was the only Democrat to vote against a bill that would have codified a woman’s right to an abortion.
In fact, voting against things may have been Mr. Manchin’s most consistent form of centrism. For example, he can claim the killing of the expanded child tax credit as one of his greatest achievements. This September, the Census Bureau reported that the child poverty rate in the United States fell to an all-time low when eligibility for the tax credit was temporarily expanded in 2021 as part of a Covid-19 relief package—and then more than doubled, from 5.2 percent to 12.4 percent, the following year, when Congress failed to renew the expanded credit. (See “Permanently expand the child tax credit. It’s the pro-life thing to do.”)
Mr. Manchin broke with his party and with President Biden by refusing to support the Biden economic package that would have permanently expanded the credit (in part by providing cash assistance to parents whose tax burden was too low to take full advantage of a deduction). He cited concerns about inflation but also pressed for new work requirements for the parents of young children and, according to several news organizations, told colleagues that he feared parents would use the child tax credit to buy illegal drugs. When asked this year for a reaction to the jump in the child poverty rate after the expiration of the expanded tax credit, he cryptically responded: “We all have to do our part. The federal government can’t run everything.”
This is not the kind of centrism that the United States needs more of. The child tax credit is broadly popular, and expanding it to cover most parents is one of the simplest and most effective ways to support families and to enable more couples to raise children at a time when the birth rate is dangerously low. This should have been one of the most attainable bipartisan goals in this Congress. Still, self-proclaimed mavericks in the Senate like Mr. Manchin and former Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona failed to get it done.
Mr. Manchin’s other big legacy is helping to kill all kinds of legislation to fight climate change, despite most Americans saying that climate change is a “major threat” to the country. He has ducked any kind of responsibility for the United States to address this global calamity by saying, “Most of the pollution today is coming from Asia.” This deflection of blame may be one reason why Pope Francis felt it necessary to correct the record in his recent apostolic exhortation “Laudate Deum,” where he condemns the “irresponsible lifestyle” of Western nations and points out that “emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries.”
There are many Catholic voters in the United States, and certainly, many West Virginia voters, who prefer Mr. Manchin’s approach to poverty and the environment, but that does not mean he should be honored in Washington as a moderate, centrist, middle-of-the-roader, pragmatist or any other synonym for someone who can get things done.
Too often, posturing as a centrist means accepting campaign contributions to ensure that nothing that can actually address problems (but might result in higher taxes or more regulations) gets through Congress.
It is now rumored that Mr. Manchin may run for president as an independent or as leader of the No Labels movement, one of many third-party movements over the years that appeal to highest-income voters (partly by proposing cuts to Social Security rather than higher taxes) and that may enable Donald J. Trump to win the election next year against a divided opposition. No Labels put out a statement, reacting to Mr. Manchin’s announcement this week by praising him for addressing “America’s biggest challenges, including inflation, an insecure border, out-of-control debt and growing threats from abroad.” Not surprisingly, this list does not include poverty, health care or the environment.
Is this “centrist”? The problem with the centrist approach is that government must identify problems and set priorities before it can take action. Once there is a consensus that the government must address a problem—and most voters agree that child poverty and climate change are problems that demand solutions—then there is an opportunity for compromise and bipartisan agreement. In at least two cases, Mr. Manchin, unfortunately, seemed to represent the idea that moderation reaches its full potential in legislative gridlock.